Monday, June 16, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Initial Reaction: "Whew!" (reaches for tissue).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (or Scaphandre et le Papillon) is based on a true story of the man Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do), the editor of Elle magazine who in 1995 suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome." Essentially, this means that while he was cognitively fully functioning, he is unable to move or speak at all. In the film, Jean-Do wakes up from a coma after this stroke and learns that he's paralyzed from head to toe. The movie wastes no time with exposition, because the situation lends itself beautifully to introduce the story and the characters.

This is a French film directed by American Julian Schnabel who won best director at Cannes Film Festival. It stars Mathieu Amalric who was praised for his role as Jean-Do. While there was nothing lacking in his performance, I have to say that I'm not quite sure what could be so amazing about playing a guy who can't move at all. (I was curious about how they got his lip to droop, though.) The only thing that Bauby can control is his left eye, and with help from the hospital staff he learns how to use this to communicate. The amazing thing is that through this method of communication he is able to write his book, the memoir that the film is based on. The rest of the characters, including Emmanuelle Seigner as Celine, Marie-Josee Croze as Henriette, Anne Consigny as Claude, and Max von Sydow as Papinou (among others) made so much of their characters. I loved how genuine and understated their performances were. Even though this script has the potential to be a drama-filled weep fest, it didn't go there at all.

Another way that this film was honest with us was in the actual character of Jean-Do. While I can't say that the story's representation of Bauby is completely accurate, it didn't attempt to make him a hero or a sacrificial lamb. From the very beginning we hear his internal monologue as he lives through the experience, and he is a complete person with all his bitterness, sarcasm, grief, and fear. An example of this is when he first sees himself in the reflection on a window, the same point at which we first see him. He is taken aback by the face staring back at him, and so are we, because all we've been aware of is his youthful, healthy voice, the voice he himself is used to hearing. As he looks at the reflection, he bluntly says to himself "I look like something from a jar of formaldehyde."

This was not a film I'd recommend for pure entertainment value. It's a difficult movie to watch, not only for the reason you think. It is filmed from Jean-Do's perspective, so the majority of the movie is what he is seeing or experiencing. As a viewer, this doesn't conjure up pity as much as empathy. Rather than looking at this pathetic creature bed-ridden and unable to do anything himself and thinking "Aw, poor guy, that sucks," we're looking out from his eyes and thinking "Hey, you there! On the outside! This sucks!" The way that director Julian Schnabel achieves this is through some very creative, unusual camera work. We literally are in Jean-Do's head, the cinematography reflects this realistically and seamlessly.


Rating: 16

This film is much more of an experience than a story. We get to experience the horror of locked-in syndrome, but also the simplicity and hope of life newly-realized. While I give credit to a great movie where credit is due, it was a bit difficult to watch, and so my enjoyment of it went down a smidge, which resulted in a 16. What a wonderful tribute to a man and his incredible story.

7 comments:

Dr. Worm said...

It was somewhat difficult to watch, but it was also strangely life-affirming, I felt. I didn't finish it and think, "Gosh, I'm glad that's finally over." I finished and thought, "Life is incredibly fragile and precious, and I had better make the most of it."

Your Racist Friend said...

I have a hard time going into movies that I know are going to be depressing, unless it's supposed to be Requiem For A Dream-level good. Plus, see lots of depressing crap at the hospital all week that I need to push out of my mind. This might be why I've gravitated more towards escapist fare the last couple of years.

Particle Man said...

here's my main issue, and the reason The Diving Bell and the Butterfly doesn't make it very high on my to-watch list. what you said about it being "more an experience than a story" is a problem for me. i think about what are my favorite movies, and most of them have a very clear and strong storyline, combined with a salient theme and movie-making technical greatness. but first and foremost, the story's the thing. i don't particularly enjoy movies that are a lot of ponderous themes and important experiences, but neglect the story part. to me, they need to go hand in hand. that's why i didn't really like 21 Grams or Mulholland Dr.

Butterfly, upon reading your review and seeing trailers, looks like an idea that wasn't really meant for a movie. it's probably very good as a memoir. but i have different expectations when i'm watching a movie. yes, i want to learn, grow and experience, but i also want to be entertained.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Hmm...I've been wrestling with how to respond to your comment, PM. I mean, Butterfly has a story, no doubt, it's not as though there's no storyline.
Also, what you said about it not really being meant for a movie may be true, but it's so effective as one. Aside from strapping me down and taping my mouth closed, I can't think of a more real way to get a person to feel what he was feeling. And while I may not have said this beforehand, now that I've experienced it I think that we should feel what he is feeling. After I saw it, I felt like a better, more informed person. And no, I didn't feel depressed.

Particle Man said...

well, good. so you feel like a better person having watched this, i no doubt would as well. but were you entertained? it didn't really sound like you were. again, i think about what are my favorite movies, and Crash is the only one that's kinda low on the entertainment scale. basically, when i go to the movies, and i'm faced with the choice of either having a fun time or a heavy time, i'll take fun.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Are you really saying you prefer mind numbing to art? I can understand going for that some of the time, but definitely not all of the time.

Your Racist Friend said...

Honestly, I'd prefer a marriage of the two (The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, LOTR trilogy, Quills, Boogie Nights, etc) as the best case scenario, but that doesn't always end up the case. Plus, there's been a rash of "arty" films that have been popularized undeservingly (Shakespeare In Love, The Pianist, etc). Plus, I'm surrounded by the serious at work all day with all the cancer, ESRD, schleroderma, quadripeligics, Parkinson's, etc. That environment the last couple of years has caused me to prefer lighter/escapist fare.